Bhagat Singh and the Revolutionary Movement
Bhagat Singh was an outstanding revolutionary and martyr of the Indian anti-colonial movement. He represented the youth who were dissatisfied with Gandhian politics and groped for revolutionary alternatives. Bhagat Singh studied the European revolutionary movement and was attracted to anarchism and communism. He became a confirmed atheist, socialist and communist. He realised that the overthrow of British rule should be accompanied by the socialist reconstruction of Indian society and for this political power must be seized by the workers. Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt enunciated their understanding of revolution in a statement made in connection with the Assembly Bomb case on 6th June, 1929:
'By Revolution we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice must change. Producers or labourers, in spite of being the most necessary element of society, are robbed by their exploiters of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant who grows corn for all, starves with his family; the weaver who supplies the world market with textile fabrics, has not enough to cover his own and his children's bodies; masons, smiths and carpenters who raise magnificent palaces, live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims.'
They argued that a 'radical change' was necessary 'and it is the duty of those who realise it to reorganise society on the socialistic basis'. For this purpose the 'establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat' was necessary (ed. Shiv Verma, Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, New Delhi, 1986, pp. 74-75).
That Bhagat Singh and his comrades had passed over to the positions of Communism is also apparent from their actions and slogans in the Lahore Conspiracy Case on January 21, 1930. The accused appeared in court wearing red scarves. As soon as the magistrate took the chair they raised the following slogans: 'Long Live Socialist Revolution', 'Long Live the Communist International', 'Long live the people', 'Lenin's name will never die', and 'Down with Imperialism.' Bhagat Singh then read the text of the following telegram in the court and asked the Magistrate to transmit it to the Third International:
'On Lenin Day we send hearty greetings to all who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin, we wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the International working class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to Imperialism'. (Ibid., p. 82)
Bhagat Singh was critical of the individual terrorism which was prevalent among the revolutionary youth of his time and realised the need for mass mobilisation by the Communist Party. In his final writings he argued that the party had to organise the workers and the peasantry. The fight around the small economic demands through the labour unions were the best means to educate the masses for a final struggle to conquer political power. Apart from this work it was necessary for the Communist Party to organise a military department. He stated: 'I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through these methods. One can easily judge it from the history of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. All our activities were directed towards an aim, i.e., identifying ourselves with the great movement as its military wing. If anybody has misunderstood me, let him amend his ideas. I do not mean that bombs and pistols are useless, rather the contrary. But I mean to say that mere bomb throwing is not only useless but sometimes harmful. The military department of the party should always keep ready all the war-material it can command for any emergency. It should back the political work of the party. It cannot and should not work independently' (Ibid. p. 138).
Bhagat Singh: Biographical Profile
Born as Bhaganwala on the 26th September, 1907, Bhagat Singh grew up in a petty-bourgeois family of Sandhu Jats settled in the Jullunder Doab district of the Punjab. He belonged to a generation that was to intervene between two decisive phases of the Indian national movement - the phase of the 'Extremism' of Lal-Bal-Pal and the Gandhian phase of non-violent mass action.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the Punjab had a broad spectrum of popular leaders working in the state. Two such leaders were Sardar Ajit Singh and Sardar Kishen Singh, Bhagat Singh's paternal uncle and father. Interestingly, although middle class, both leaders were in great opposition to the mainstream leadership of the Indian National Congress and particularly Lala Lajpat Rai. Both brothers were consistently radical in attempting to mobilise the masses to oppose the British at every opportunity that arose.
In an article called 'Emergence of the Punjab in the freedom movement',1 Bhagat Singh traces their inspiration to the extremist leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. 'Having seen their enthusiasm at the 1906 Congress Convention in Calcutta, Lokmaniya was pleased and in bidding them adieu, gave them the responsibility of strengthening the movement in the Punjab.' On returning to Lahore, both brothers 'started a monthly newspaper called Bharat Mata to propagate their ideas'. Since they had no money and no influence among the rich, says Bhagat Singh, they had to collect everything necessary for propaganda work themselves. This they did by attracting a crowd in the market by ringing a bell and giving a lecture 'on how foreigners had destroyed India's industry and commerce'. This was followed by an announcement that an important meeting would be held within the week at the Bharat Mata office. After the first two meetings held on two consecutive Sundays, a decision was taken to hold a meeting every Sunday. Many people joined the group including Lala Lalchand 'Phalak', the 'national poet' of the Punjab, Lala Pindidas, Dr. Ishwari Prasad and Sufi Amba Prasad. Sardar Ajit Singh and Mahant Nandkishore were elected the President and Secretary of the group now organised as the 'Bharat Mata Society'.
In 1887, the Punjab government created the Chenab Colony, by diverting the Chenab river into a system of perennial canals rapidly turning the barren wasteland of the central Punjab into fertile farmland.2 The colony was to be a model for the rest of Punjab, supervised by a paternalistic administration. 'Healthy agricultural communities of the "best Punjabi type" would be established. (which would) in turn demonstrate to other Punjabis how proper sanitation, careful economic planning and co-operation with the government could result in a higher standard of living'.3
In October 1906 the government introduced the Punjab Colonisation of Land Bill in the local Legislative Council. This Bill established retroactive conditions concerning sanitation, tree planting and construction in the Chenab Colony. In case of breach of the conditions, fines would be collected in the same fashion as revenue. Section 31 ruled that courts would have no jurisdiction in the Colony. In November, the government announced a drastic increase in the occupier rate (charge on canal water). In the Bari Doab canal area running through the districts of Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Lahore, rates had been lower because the government had hoped that a leniency in revenue would ensure the loyalty of the Sikh Jats who supplied recruits for the Indian Army.4 The yeomen farmers of the Colony were already discontented over the maladministration in the Colony and opposed the extra legal fees that the Bill sought to legitimise. Graft and corruption had galvanised the whole Colony into opposition to the entire system of interference and paternalism. From 1903, Sifaj-ud Din Ahmed, a retired postal officer, started the Zamindar, a newspaper, to publicise the colonists' plight. It was only a matter of time for discontent to turn into political opposition.
Bhagat Singh's grandfather, Sardar Arjan Singh, had migrated to the canal area and settled at Banga, Lyallpur. It is therefore not surprising that Sardar Ajit Singh was able to articulate so clearly the problems of the colonists and the objection to the Bill.
On 22nd and 23rd March, 1907, the Zamindar held a public meeting to protest against the bill. Although this was a platform for the rich yeomanry, Ajit Singh sent delegates from the 'Bharat Mata Society' to launch an agitation against the British. Lala Lajpat Rai was asked by the newspaper to give a speech. Bhagat Singh in his article on the national movement in the Punjab, shows how Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh differed on this issue.
'Before leaving (for Lyallpur) Lalaji sent a message to Sardar Ajit Singh saying that the government should be thanked for (a previous) amendment and then asked to repeat the law'. To this Ajit Singh is said to have replied 'we shall prepare the masses for a no revenue campaign. Also we can never thank the government'.
The meeting itself is described by Bhagat Singh thus, 'Lalaji was received by a large rally and consequently reached the pandal two hours late. In the meanwhile, Sardar Ajit Singh gave a speech. He was an impressive speaker. His tireless style of speech made the audience enthusiastic and by the end he had a large following of people. By the time Lalaji reached the pandal, the masses were with the Bharat Mata Society;. Lalaji was Punjab's finest orator but the style, the fearlessness and determination with which he spoke was something else. He received an ovation after every line. After the meeting many people dedicated their lives to the motherland'.5 This account is also corroborated by N. Gerald Barrier, 'Lajpat Rai attempted to be moderate, but as happened frequently with his speech making, the crowds' frenzy drove him to use phrases and ideas verging on what the British termed 'sedition'. After the meeting, Lajpat Rai went on a lecture tour in the United Provinces, while Ajit Singh began to organise the farmers of Amritsar and Lahore. Under Ajit Singh's leadership the colonists passed a resolution supporting a boycott of British goods and started a campaign to ensure that nobody paid the new water rate. The price of disobedience was social ostracism by the offender's caste or a fine of Rs. 500.6 The Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, Denzil Ibbetson believed sedition in the province to be taking two directions. First Ajit Singh was trying to spread disaffection among the troops and the students and secondly the 'fomenters of unrest' were corrupting the yeomanry. He asked the Government of India for permission to deport Ajit Singh and Lajpat Rai so as to be able to 'strike terror into the minds of those concerned'. Ajit Singh was deported to Mandalay. Sardar Kishen Singh though less prominent than his brother was also part of this agitation and was put into jail.
ln 1907 the Bill was repealed and soon Ajit Singh and Kishen Singh were released. Bhagat Singh, born in September that year, was called Bhaganwala (the child of God) by his grandmother. Bhagat Singh began his primary education at the District Board Primary School in Banga. In 1916-17, his father moved to Lahore to be able to organise relief work for the victims of a severe earthquake in Kangra. Bhagat Singh was now shifted to the D.A.V. High School, Lahore. Writing about these years, Bhagat Singh said, 'It was through his (father's) teachings that I aspired to devote my life to the cause of freedom'.7
In his first letter, written to his grandfather at the age of 12, Bhagat Singh reassures him that he has passed his school exam comfortably and the latter need not worry on that count. Two years later he wrote again to tell his grandfather that 'railway men are planning to go on strike. Hopefully they will start by the next week'. This letter is dated the 12th of November 1921 and shows that he was aware of the Non Co-operation Movement that Gandhi had launched. Both letters are in fluent Urdu.
In 1923, Bhagat Singh joined the National College, Lahore. It was affiliated to the Punjab Quami Vidya Pith and was founded and managed by Lala Lajpat Rai and Bhai Parmanand. The College was set up as an alternative to the institutions run by the Government, bringing to the field of education the idea of Swadeshi. The philosophy behind the establishment of such a College was to produce 'self reliant, aggressive (in order to be progressive) men and women that new India wants'.8
Bhagat Singh seems to have had an impressive academic record in College. The Principal of the College, Chhibil Das wrote in his memoirs, 'There were no books at hand. So it was for the teachers to select books from the libraries and give the relevant portions to the students. in our National College, we used to talk about Mazzini and Garibaldi. We used to talk about Ireland, about Sinn Fein movement of De Valera and other movements and about the Russian revolution'.9 The Russian Narodniks seem to have been discussed with the history professor, Jai Chandra Vidyalankar.
Bhagat Singh was also a member of the College dramatics society and seemed to have 'gained much prominence amongst the students and teachers, not only of his own college but other local colleges'.10 'He was particularly impressive because of his youthful physique and commanding voice', one of his biographers, S.R. Bakshi tells us. Bhagat Singh was fluent in Urdu, Hindi, Gurmukhi, English and Sanskrit. In the pamphlet, 'Why I am an Atheist' Bhagat Singh writes about his days in college. 'Though a favourite with some professors and disliked by certain others, I was never an industrious or studious boy. I could not get any chance of indulging in such feelings as vanity. I was rather a boy with a shy nature, who had certain pessimistic dispositions about (my) future career'.
By the age of 16, Bhagat Singh was completely dedicated to the cause of national liberation. Nothing illustrates this better than his attitude to marriage. In 1924, Bhagat Singh was pressurised to get married. Unable to convince his parents of his determination not to marry, Bhagat Singh left his house in Lahore and reached Kanpur armed with an introduction by Jai Chandra Vidyalankar for Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. In the note left behind for his father Bhagat Singh said, 'my life has been dedicated to the noblest cause, that of the freedom of the country. Therefore there is no rest or worldly desire that can lure me now. If you remember, when I was small, Bapuji (Arjun Singh) declared at my thread ceremony that I had been dedicated to the service of my country. I am, thus waiting to fulfil that commitment. I hope you will forgive me'. On being asked why he did not want to get married, Bhagat Singh told Jaidev Gupta, his classmate and friend, that he had chosen a path which was full of many possibilities. His two uncles had gone that way and they had left two widows. Should he also leave another widow?11 Chhabil Das has left us an account of how when he was to get married, Bhagat Singh came and reproached him on getting married. 'Besides them being my students we had good personal relations too. when Bhagat Singh heard that I was going to be married. he insisted that I should not marry. I said, if I could get a really good life companion who, instead of retarding my activities, would invigorate them, what would be your view? In the same breadth I quoted three concrete examples of Mrs. Sun Yat Sen,. wife of Lenin and. companion of Karl Marx. (At this) Bhagat Singh replied "Guruji who can vanquish you in any argument". So he yielded.'
From 1923-24, Bhagat Singh worked with Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi in Kanpur. Vidyarthi brought out a weekly nationalist newspaper called the Pratap. Here Bhagat Singh worked under the alias, Balwant. It was here that he met people like B.K. Dutt, Shiv Venna, B.K. Sinha etc. with whom he would share a close camaraderie. Ajoy Ghosh who was fifteen at the time wrote about his first meeting with Bhagat Singh thus, 'I believe it was sometime in 1923 that I met Bhagat Singh. he was introduced to me by B.K. Dutt in Cawnpore. Tall and thin, rather shabbily dressed, very quiet, he seemed a typical village lad lacking smartness and self confidence. I did not think very highly of him and told Dutt so when he was one'.12 This was the first time that Bhagat Singh had left his house and the Punjab for a new city and new people.
Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi attempted to get Bhagat Singh a job as a headmaster of a National school near Aligarh, a post he did eventually accept.
1924 was perhaps the most important year in Bhagat Singh's life. In Kanpur he became a member of the Hindustan Republican Association, started by Sachindranath Sanyal a year earlier. The main organiser of the Association was Chandra Shekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh became very close to him. It was as a member of the HRA that Bhagat Singh began to take seriously the philosophy of the Bomb. Armed revolution was understood to be the only weapon with which to fight British imperialism. Bhagat Singh went from village to village recruiting people and to activate the villages in the United Provinces. Propaganda attracted police work but it had now become easy to escape unnoticed.
In 1925, Bhagat Singh returned to Lahore and within the next year he and his colleagues started a militant youth organisation called the Naujawan Bharat Sabha. In April 1926, Bhagat Singh established contact with Sohan Singh Josh and through him the 'Workers and Peasants Party' which brought out the monthly magazine Kirti in Punjabi. For the next year Bhagat Singh worked with Josh and joined the editorial board of Kirti. In 1927, he was first arrested on charges of association with the Kakori Case accused for an article written under the pseudonym Vidrohi (Rebel). He was also accused of being responsible for a bomb explosion at Lahore during the Dussehra fair. He was let off for good behaviour against a heavy security of Rs. 60,000.
In 1928, Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad were the sole absconders of the Kakori case and the other leaders being put behind bars meant that they were the leaders of the Hindustan Republican Association. 'One day in 1928 I was surprised when a young man walked into my room' Ajoy Ghosh remembers, 'and greeted me. It was Bhagat Singh but not the Bhagat Singh that I had met. before. Tall and magnificently proportioned, with a keen, intelligent face and gleaming eyes, he looked a different man altogether. And as he talked I realised that he had grown not merely in years All those who met Bhagat Singh then and afterwards have testified to his remarkable intelligence and to the powerful impression he made when talking. Not that he was a brilliant speaker. But he spoke with such force, passion and earnestness that one could not help being impressed. We talked the whole night and as we went out for a stroll. it seemed to me that a new era was dawning for our party. We knew what we wanted and we knew how to reach our goal'.
Ideology: The Revolutionary Terrorist Tradition
Bhagat Singh spent the years from 1927 to 1928 in studying the history of the revolutionary movement in India. His articles, mostly written for Kirti, deal with the Babbar Akali Movement, the Kakori case, the Delhi Bomb Case, individual revolutionaries, the necessity for young people to come forward and join the revolutionary movement and the need to evolve an alternative to the mainstream leadership of the Congress and particularly, Lala Lajpat Rai.13
The first article Bhagat Singh wrote on the Babbar Akali movement for the Pratap. It was published on the 15th of March, 1926. The Babbar Akali movement was an attempt by Sikhs to liberate the country from the British and to free their Gurudwaras from the corrupt Mahants by an armed insurrection. It was confined to the Bist Doab and its membership was primarily rural. The leaders of this movement were mainly soldiers who had left the army to join the Non Co-operation Movement. In 1921 it was decided to murder Sunder Singh Majitha, Bedi Kartar Singh, Mahant Devdas of Nankana, C.M. Bowring, the Superintendent of Police and C.M. King, Commissioner, Jullunder. This was a retaliation for the massacre of 140 Sikhs that Mahant Narayandas organised in Nankana Sahib on the 21st of February. The Babbar Akali group however did not succeed in killing anybody but the attempt to assassinate Bowring got them into jail. This is known as the Akali Conspiracy Case of 1921.14 Bhagat Singh was very impressed by this movement, in fact he started learning Gurmukhi only after the Nankana Sahib massacre. In the article Bhagat Singh carefully delineates the contribution of the individuals who participated in the movement. What impresses him the most is the fearlessness with which these men are ready to embrace death (six of the leaders were sentenced to death and executed on the 27th of February, 1926). Bhagat Singh urges the reader to visualise how these men must have taken the pledge to forsake their families and sacrifice their life for the country, 'What a beautiful, bewitching and pure vision it must have been. What are the heights of self sacrifice? Where are the limits to courage and fearlessness? Were there no boundaries to this commitment to their ideals?15
The next article is written in May, 1927 for Kirti, under the pseudonym Vidrohi. On the 9th of August, 1925, Ramprasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah and other members of the Hindustan Republican Association stopped (and subsequently looted) the tram carrying the government treasury at Kakori, near Lucknow. On 6th April, 1927, the main accused were sentenced to death. This article is interesting because it describes vividly the camaraderie that the accused had with each other and the happiness that they expressed on hearing their death sentence. It ends with a comment on those who have no sympathy for the accused, 'We sigh and think we have done our duty. We do not have that fire, we do not suffer, for we have become corpses. Today they are sitting on a Hunger-Strike and suffering and we are silently watching the show. May God grant them the strength and courage they need in their last few days'.16
In February, 1928, Bhagat Singh (under the pseudonym Vidrohi) wrote a number of life sketches of prominent Punjabi revolutionaries, in the Phansi issue of the Chand.17 The man who Bhagat Singh was to idealise and consider his 'mentor, friend and brother', Kartar Singh Sarabha was born in 1896 in Ludhiana. Having finished his college education, Sarabha went to America in 1912, where racial discrimination made him sensitive to the condition of Indians abroad. He organised Indian workers in San Francisco and they all readily agreed to sacrifice their life and wealth to the cause of the liberation of India. In 1913 the Gadr, a newspaper was started and Sarabha joined its editorial board. Bhagat Singh was particularly inspired by a song that Sarabha used to sing, 'To serve the country is very difficult. To talk about it is easy. Those who have chosen to serve the country face a million problems'. Sarabha returned to India in 1914 and within the year contacted the revolutionary leaders of India. In February 1915, Sarabha and Rash Behari Bose planned to infiltrate the army and attempt to spark off a revolt. This did not however happen because a member of their group turned approver and Sarabha was arrested and sentenced to death. On 16th November, 1915, Sarabha was executed. In concluding this brief biographical sketch, Bhagat Singh asks rhetorically, 'What was the purpose of his death? Why did Kartar Singh Sarabha die? The answer is absolutely clear, he died for the country and he did not want more than to die fighting for his country'.
The May 1928 issue of Kirti reprinted an article published in the Bombay newspaper Shradhanand on the true meaning of terrorism. Since Bhagat Singh was a member of the editorial board of Kirti, it is interesting to see how he and his comrades participated in the contemporary ideological debate of terrorism. The article sought to defend terrorism by rejecting the current definition of terrorism as the destructive, coercive and unjust use of force.
'Some mischievous individuals have attempted to set up terrorism in opposition to non-violence and that has led to a great misunderstanding'. The ideals of 'bravery, courage, martyrdom, the ability to use weapons, generosity, duty etc., dependent on the application of force are now considered base and unqualified'. A comparison is then made to the West, where 'every country is attempting to increase the arms at its disposal. On the other hand, here in India, it is considered a sin to take up arms.' The article asks its readers not to equate violence with crime, for 'when patriots take up arms for the sake of their country and its safety, when they eliminate exploitation and oppression or when they avenge the injustice done to the oppressed and go to the gallows, they use violence but they do not spread terror'. The distinction between crime and terrorism, although both use violence, is based on the intention of those who use it.
In 1930, Bhagat Singh wrote the (now famous) pamphlet called 'Why I am an Atheist'. This pamphlet is important because of the autobiographical details that form part of the narrative. 'When I joined the revolutionary party (HRA), the first leader I came in contact with was not confident of rejecting the presence of God even though he was not a firm believer The second leader (Sachindranath Sanyal) was a great devotee What I want to say is that atheism has still not been established as a creed within the revolutionary party. All four accused in the Kakori case went to the gallows praying.'
Bhagat Singh while aware of the revolutionary terrorist tradition that had existed in the country as a mode of protest against the British, especially in the Punjab, distanced himself from his predecessors on two counts. First, revolutionary leaders had not been able to accept the logic of atheism and much less to publicly proclaim it. Second there had been no conception of a post-independence society. The immediate goal being the destruction of the British Empire there had been no inclination to work out a political alternative. For Bhagat Singh the decisive break came in the post-1926 period when the Hindustan Republican Association leadership fell on his shoulders. He lost no time in articulating the necessity of having a political ideology and that was to be Marxism. 'The romance of violence that was dominant in our predecessors was replaced by a serious ideology. There was no place for Romanticism and superstition any longer. We rooted ourselves in the present'.
From 1926, Bhagat Singh began to 'study in order to be able to counter criticism from opponents and sharpen (his) own arguments'. The most important requirement was to articulate clearly the ideals for which they were fighting. The fact that there had been no real agitation in 1926 meant that there was time to devote to studying. 'I studied the (writings of) the anarchist leader Bakunin, some (thing of) the father of communism Marx, but more (of) Lenin, Trotsky and others who had succeeded in bringing about a revolution in their country.'
From May to September, 1928, Kirti serialised Bhagat Singh's article on Anarchism. 'The people are scared of the word anarchism', declared Bhagat Singh. 'The word anarchism has been abused so much that even in India revolutionaries have been called anarchist to make them unpopular'. The word Anarchism is defined as the absence of any kind of rule. 'I think in India the idea of universal brotherhood, the Sanskrit sentence vasudev kutumbakam etc., have the same meaning.' The 'first man to explicitly propagate the theory of Anarchism was Proudhon and that is why he is called the founder of Anarchism. After him a Russian, Bakunin worked hard to spread the doctrine. He was followed by Prince Kropotkin etc'.
The article goes on to explain why Bhagat Singh was so attracted to Anarchism. 'The ultimate goal of Anarchism is complete independence, according to which no one will be obsessed with God or religion, nor will anybody be crazy for money or other worldly desires. There will be no chains on the body